The sound and the Fury

April 28th 2019

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Today I am indulging in a little nostalgia. I am free of child and matrimonial obligations and, being roughly in the area while visiting my mother, have decided to visit old university haunts in and around Sheffield.

It is a beautiful spring day; the sun is shining, the birds are singing and blossom is floating gently about the hallowed grounds of the cemetery like radiant dust.  As a student in Sheffield I lived in the house immediately opposite the entrance to the grave yard, which, like most places and things in Sheffield, is situated on the side of a hill. A broad path runs up through the centre with many other smaller tributaries running of either side, leading to unseen nooks and clearings that perhaps in the past have been the secret rendezvous locations for furtive lovers. That path had provided a short cut to my friend’s house and I would regularly walk through it on my way to visit, at a pace brisk enough to betray my anxiety of being in a graveyard in the cold dead of a winter night.

Today though various people are spending time in the cemetery exploring the pathways and secret hiding places. It is a warm and almost comforting place in the sunshine. It’s also quite a substantial plot and recognised as a site of significance and historical importance. There are so many stories buried here, ranging from terrible misfortune to quirky misadventure. The macabre and the melancholy have become transformed by time into curios and curiosities to be collected by those who take the time to look and explore the stones and the temples within its grounds.

Mark and Nigel are here for just that purpose. Mark has found a book that documents some of these stories and he is looking for the graves of those he has read about. He asks me what I am doing there and so I explain about how I like to meet people and take their portrait in the hope that I can reveal something about the nature of our humanity.

Mark is Nigel’s carer; I saw them just earlier while I was parking, saw how Nigel’s condition was challenging to manage and, while harmless, still potentially distressing to others; at one point he had managed to drop both his trousers and under garments in the middle of the street and it is clear that while he is conscious and aware, there is a high degree of cognitive impairment. It takes a special kind of person to work with someone this vulnerable.

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We talk about Nigel and his condition but there isn’t much he can tell me. I’m not thinking about photographing either of them as there are clearly issues of consent abound with such activity. But as we chat, Nigel seems to bond with me. He takes hold of my arm and hand and moves closer for reassurance or comfort, I’m not sure which but it’s clearly a special moment, perhaps more special for me than him as I suddenly engage in a very tactile way with his vulnerability. My heart opens and I sense his gentleness and the idea that has been growing in my head, that the greatest sense of our humanity lies in our most vulnerable moments, bursts forth. I decide to risk taking his picture.

I take a number of frames each showing Nigel in his different manifest states of waking consciousness. I am strongly reminded of the tragic character Benjy in William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ for whom waking time does not exist in a linear fashion but rather as a series of jumbled memories strung together in a stream of consciousness. And yet, just like Benjy, there is a rhythm to Nigel’s expression, a cadence that allows a glimpse into what he might be experiencing.

There is also an overwhelming sense of his innocence, his lack of malice and it strikes me that this is a rare and precious thing. Few people you will ever meet will have quite this lack of malice. We are all, mostly, capable of doing bad things, wicked things perhaps even evil things if the situation and circumstance provide us with the means, the motivation and the opportunity. But in Nigel there is no malice, there is only vulnerability and, in that vulnerability, lies all of our humanity.

Who is Guido?

He pulls two cigarettes out a crumpled pack, lights them both and, drawing heavily on one of them, passes the other to her. A thick cloud of smoke envelope them both in a cunning scheme. She checks her phone to make sure they still have time. The photographer has stopped them for some reason they cannot be sure of but they are both curious and while their English is poor it is still better than his Spanish, which is limited to please and thankyou and ordering a beer.

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She asks him where he is from.

‘London’ the photographer replies. She smiles a toothless grin exposing the substantial gaps between the otherwise crooked and discoloured teeth and tries to explain that she also has a son who lives in London and that she wants to visit him. Perhaps he can help her, perhaps he has a place she can stay.

Her partner draws heavily again on his cigarette, adjusts the thick silver chains around his neck and wrist and checks the contents of his carrier bag. He is starting to feel just a little anxious; they have to deliver their package by 10.30am otherwise Guido will not happy and you don’t want to upset Guido even on a lovely spring day such as this. His temper is notoriously short lived and his retribution tends towards the biblical. He nudges his partner to try and signal his discomfort but she is steadfastly gazing at the photographer’s lens as he raises his camera to shoot.

He reminds her of her son.

A moment later and he is handing them both a business card and explaining that if they would like a copy it would be his pleasure to send them one. They collect up their belongings and head off to meet Guido as arranged.

(National) Identity Politics

A little while ago the UK almost tore itself in two over the issue of Scottish independence. It was a universally unpopular idea south of the border and, as it turns out, not quite as popular north of it as the fishwives, Salmon and Sturgeon had hoped for. At one time I shared most of my compatriot’s view that breaking up the union would be about as bleak an outcome as could be imagined for our country, but of course that was before the clusterfuck that is Brexit. If it were possible for one cankerous bout of identity politics to be topped by another even more toxic, gout ridden, rash of vile nationalistic sentiment it wasn’t something anyone anticipated in 2015. Brexit is a carbuncle on the pustule ridden body of identity politics.

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And yet I can empathise, perhaps even sympathise, with the overwhelming sense of national sovereignty that fuelled Scottish independence. In conversation with a Scottish colleague, who was herself fiercely in favour of the union (hardly surprising since she’d made London her home for the last 30 years),  and rather scornful of those who would break it up, I found myself being rather contrary and making the argument in favour of independence. How often does history give you the opportunity to declare yourself a sovereign state, to throw of your chains and embrace liberty?

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“To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights [and duties] of humanity.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a point and I found myself realising that if I were Scottish I might well be embracing sovereignty rather than renouncing it.

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Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in Barcelona, mostly by coincidence of suddenly having several key clients with offices there that I need to visit. I learned a few years ago that life’s too short to see only the inside of airports, hotels and offices when undertaking business trips so I always make sure I schedule trips to overlap with a little time off with my camera. Being exposed to the overwhelming sense of Catalan national identity has been something of an eye opener especially in the context of our recent history with independence referenda. It is fascinating to try and understand how a nascent sense of national identity emerges into either fervent sovereignty or vile sedition, depending on your perspective. Just what are the necessary conditions, what role does language play in that identity, how far back can the loss of historical independence go before it’s reasonable to dismiss it as whimsy of a bygone era. What about culture and what the hell is that anyway?

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I don’t for one moment pretend to understand the history Catalonian identity or why the desire to reclaim their liberty has surfaced now (well apart from the fact that most of the western world seems intent on loosing itself up the rectum of identity politics and over bearing nationalism but that’s a slightly different problem), but it is interesting to meet people who feel strongly enough about who they are to spend a good part of their waking day protesting about it and trying to get their political leaders freed from jail. And it does seem like a crowning irony for a democratic and sovereign state to jail its own citizens for sedition arising from holding an otherwise democratic vote even if that vote were to break up an otherwise really good party.

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"Reality" - A story by Gwen Midwood (11) inspired by a photograph I saw

I love how photography can inspire people; how it can evoke strong emotional responses. The daughter of a friend of mine had just such an emotional response to one of the random pictures I had posted on Instagram over the summer. The image was actually just a test shot, taken outside a camera shop in Manchester with a camera I was considering buying. The subject shown isn’t actually homeless, he’s just finished his shift working on a building site, but Gwen, the daughter of my friend, didn’t see that, she saw something else and was inspired to write the following story:


Reality by Gwen Midwood

I sat there without a sound, I watched the moon cower behind the dull grey clouds. The fiery stars silenced the night abruptly creating a strange hush across the never-ending street. As I watched, my ears tensed, my muscles wept, my eyes stung.  My head spin vigorously as I rudely stared at the group of men sprinting up the street singing. How I wished to be them, to be happy and know that you were going home to a hot steaming dinner and a cotton bed to snuggle up in afterwards. I wish I had that.

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Slowly I propped my brittle back against the cold metal shelter in the rusty bus station. I thought about how many people didn’t appreciate what they had, but I did. I thought about those poor lonely kids in Africa walking five miles and back to get dirty water, making the journey multiple times in a day. I was incredibly lucky to have family and a bus shelter to cover me in the rain, to guide me with my life.

The night was as dark as a volcanic pit of ash, the moon was like a never ending, everlasting candle never put pout. The trees swayed and the clouds whispered in the still night. Suddenly my true memories came back to me; my childhood standing on a deserted street praying to be educated. Just once or maybe a few more times I dreamed of having a job, to become a doctor, to help people like me. I knew I would understand them, with loyalty.

Without warning, I fell asleep.

What I dreamed of I cannot remember. I sat up to feel the howling wind shouting in my face. Gradually I got up to search through the last scraps of food in the bin beside my freezing sleeping bag. Nothing. I crossed my fingers hoping that someone had left an aubergine or some fruit on the cobbled road. Frustrated I watched the sun rise cautiously. My tummy rumbled hungrily, clarifying that needed to eat. I hadn’t eaten for several long days.

 

 

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

A good friend who follows and appreciates my work suggested I enter this particular image into the Kendal Mountain Film Festival as they were running a photography competition as part of the event and had a category called ‘Urban Adventure’. Now much as I love this image, it’s not the kind of image that I’d like to be known for, only because if I aspire to anything it’s portraiture rather than street or sport or ‘urban’. But I thought what the heck; I was pretty happy with the image and a lot of people had been commenting that it was very good so I thought I’d enter.

And blow me I was the runner up and won a pair of socks!

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Mick, the Blind Runner

I met Mick and Mike about a month ago quite by chance. They ran past my house as I was leaving for a day trip to Brighton with my mother. We were already in the car and about to drive off as they ran past; the moment I saw them I cut the engine and chased after them on foot.

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As a young teenager our family took part in a sponsored bike ride for the RNIB. At the time we were a big cycling family and owned a tandem that my brother and I would sometimes race with my dad. We rode stoker (the person on the back) to his pilot. As part of the charity bike ride, my dad rode pilot to a blind stoker, as did many other people taking part, and the memory has always stuck with me. When I saw Mick run past, being guided by Mike, it resonated, and I knew it was too important a story to miss. I ended up photographing them both in the car park of the closed down pub opposite my house.

I rarely ask to do follow up shoots with people I’ve met spontaneously. I have tried a few times but the results are invariably no better than the ones taken ‘in the moment and in some cases they have been worse. I’ve learned that my work is at its best when it is spontaneous and in the moment (or perhaps it is me that is at his best in this situation). But Mick and Mike are local and the story is compelling so I felt I wanted to do a follow up.

Mick lost his sight 16 years ago as a result of a genetically inherited condition that can result in blindness in later life. His children and siblings are also carriers of the genetic marker, but only time will tell if they also end up losing their sight. I cannot fathom how difficult it must be to lose a faculty as significant as sight at any age but Mick seems to have embraced this desperately unfortunate outcome as if it were an opportunity to stick two fingers up at mother nature. In fabulous defiance of his condition, Mick only took up marathon running and triathlon after he lost his sight. He trains with Mike, as well as other members of Horsham Joggers, but it is with Mike he seems to have developed a particular bond. It is very apparent that they both get something profound from their engagement with each other; they run using a chord that they both hold so that they are ‘tethered’ together. Mike provides enough commentary to both guide Mick and paint mental pictures for him to help his orientation and his enjoyment.

I arranged to meet them in the local park at first light. It was cold and clear and I hoped that the mist and frost would add an extra dimension to the composition over the original portrait, which had been shot mid-morning on an otherwise bright but overcast day. I wanted to photograph them after they had been for a run partly because I wanted their body heat to be visible if possible and partly because I wanted their activity to be an authentic part of the composition. I also wanted their running attire, in particular their hi-vis vests, to be part of the composition. This was one of the elements that worked so well in the original; in addition to being very bright and visually arresting, the hi-vis jackets also told the story of their partnership without needing any additional explanation.

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Photography, for me at least, is about looking and seeing; it’s about seeing the things we take for granted and the things we often miss because we are too busy or too preoccupied. When I set out to photograph Mick the irony of making a portrait of someone who is blind was not lost on me; if anything I wanted romantic irony to prick the viewer into reassessing the value of their own vision and to start trying to ‘see’ as well as look. So it was particularly ironic when having got home and downloaded the files from the shoot, that I noticed that the vests Mick and Mike had previously worn, and which marked each out as the ‘blind runner’ and the ‘guide for blind runner’, had somehow got mixed up. Mick was wearing the guide’s vest and Mike the blind runner’s.

How could I not seen this, in particular, how could I have not seen this while engaged in actively looking and seeing them, in photographing them? My first reaction was of incredible disappointment; the shoot was ruined and I would have to ask them to make this effort all over again (they started their run at 6.30am), something I wasn’t sure I could push my luck with. But then I reflected a little; the message about looking but not seeing, even when you think you are making the effort to see, is even more powerful. And there is an additional layer of romantic irony with the blind runner being the one who is now our guide; it is Mick, who despite his blindness undertakes incredible endeavours, who guides us and reminds us that our pursuits can always be noble and worthwhile irrespective of our (dis)ability.

 

Still Life with Apples (after Caravaggio)

I’ve never really been inspired by still life photography; it has always seemed just a little facile to me. Still life painting I completely understand and appreciate; the ability to conjure your hand to create strokes of paint on a canvass to perfectly recreate either the literal or the experiential verisimilitude of the scene is a skill far beyond my reckoning. And the joy of seeing the light fall on the canvass as if it were happening for real is such a wonder. But photographing that feels a bit like cheating. Every time I see the fabulous tableau creations done to show off the capabilities of an exotic new camera, I feel the talent is more in the set design than the execution of a photograph.

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But then the same is true of the type of portraiture I execute. Indeed, it’s true of any portrait. Come to think of it, the majority of talent in any photographer is in their ability to conjure the scene, whether that be by design (for example with the work of Greg Crewsdon), or by virtue of curation.

Yesterday my boys collected up all the windfall apples from our garden and with my mother, made stewed apples for use in pies and crumbles. The collection consisted of a lot of semi decayed examples and far more keepers than we needed. At the end of the exercise, there were a number of left-over apples in the kitchen, just lying on the work top in wonderful early morning light. They looked too good to ignore and so I thought why not try my hand at still life?    

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I am quite taken by the results (though really this is just a playful exercise) but if nothing else I have gained some insight into colour and light, particularly the importance of depth and texture and how to use shadow to create this in the scene.